Barzani Flying a Kite: Sunni And Shi'ite, Sufi And "Ghulat" Gambit
20 July 2014
By Amir Taheri
What do you do when you have walked your cat the wrong
way? The reasonable answer is that you walk it right
back. This is what Kurdistan Regional Government
President Massoud Barzani should do regarding his talk
of a referendum on independence for Iraqi Kurds.
Unless he does that, and does it quickly, he risks
undermining his credibility as a serious political
Why did Barzani, a seasoned politician, decide to fly
that kite at this time? Cynics claim he wanted to
divert attention from his seizure of Kirkuk. A Persian
proverb says that if you want an adversary to accept
fever, threaten him with death. Thus, Barzani is
inviting Iraqis to accept the loss of Kirkuk as a
lesser evil compared to secession by the Kurdish
While Barzani may not be immune to occasional
opportunism—which politician is?—I doubt he would
stoop that low. Iraq is facing an existential crisis
that affects all its communities, not only Arabs.
Another no less cynical explanation is that Barzani
wished to hide his party's electoral setback by
casting himself as a champion of statehood. However,
that explanation, too, may be questionable. Thanks to
Barzani's father, the legendary Mullah Mustafa, the
name Barzani has become synonymous with the Kurdish
cause. In any case, the election setback that Barzani
and other traditional Kurdish leaders suffered was due
to voters' concern about corruption and opportunities
missed by the governing parties, not an outburst of
desire for independence.
In fact, independence was not part of any election
manifesto. Nor was it at the center of any debate
before or during the campaign. If Barzani wishes to
respond to the views of his electorate he should offer
programs for rooting out corruption, improving the
performance of his government and implementing overdue
economic and political reforms.
The referendum gambit is a bad idea under any
configuration. It has divided the Kurds, including
Barzani's own party, because many activists believe
this is no time to raise so vital and complex an
Leaders from different Kurdish parties have publicly
criticized the referendum idea. The Patriotic Union of
Kurdistan, Jalal Talabani's party, is campaigning to
retain the position of the Iraqi President by fielding
Barham Salih as candidate. You cannot seek the
presidency of Iraq while planning to carve up the
country. "We are passing through a political
earthquake," one Kurdish leader told me on condition
of anonymity. "One cannot talk of redecorating a room
when the whole house is shaken to its foundations."
The suggested scheme could, in fact, produce the
opposite effect by uniting rival Arab Iraqi factions
in opposition to a plan to dismantle their state. Even
if nothing concrete happens now, the very attempt at
secession may poison Arab–Kurdish relations for some
time. Arab chauvinists might be able to claim that
they were right after all in suggesting that the Kurds
cannot be trusted.
The referendum idea has also reunited rival powers
whose divisions have always offered the Kurds some
room for maneuver. It is remarkable that the United
States, Turkey, Iran and all Arab states are singing
from the same hymn sheet in their rejection of a
Kurdish secessionist bid, at least at this time.
First developed in 19th-century Europe, by the 1920s
the concept of a nation-state had been recognized as
the standard format for international relations. Thus,
ethnic and religious minorities across the globe,
Kurds among them, were persuaded that they, too, would
one day end up having a nation-state of their own.
However, the fulfillment of such a dream would mean
redrawing virtually every frontier in all continents
including Australia, where Aborigines have long dreamt
of their own state. In 1993 a European Union
conference hosted by France in Paris reported the
existence of 113 "national and/or ethnic minorities"
within the union. The conference ended with an
agreement whereby EU members committed themselves to
recognizing their respective minorities and helping
them maintain and develop their cultures. Thus, for
example, the British declared the Cornish people to be
a legitimate minority, and Denmark extended the same
favor to its Frisian minority.
The United Nations recognizes many more minorities.
According to the UN's latest estimate, between 600 and
1.2 million people, 10 to 20 per cent of the world's
population, live in more than 190 states as
minorities. Giving a state to even some of them could
mean creating more than 100 new nation-states.
The Kurds represent one of the largest of those
minorities. In addition, the overwhelming majority of
them live in contiguous territories in seven
countries: Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran,
Iraq and Syria. The four versions of Kurdish spoken in
those territories are linguistically close enough to
be accessible to all Kurds. As far as religion is
concerned there is more diversity with various
versions of Islam, Sunni and Shi'ite as well as Sufi
and "Ghulat" ("those who exaggerate") not to mention
heterodox communities such as Yazidis. Interestingly,
there are more ethnic Kurds in Western Europe,
especially Germany, than in Iraq.
As far as Iraq is concerned one problem is that only
half of the estimated six million ethnic Kurds live in
the three autonomous provinces. Even then, the three
provinces are home to other minorities, including
Christians, agnostics and Faylis.
Don't get me wrong. I am not against statehood for any
minority, let alone Kurds, wherever they are in the
world. However, I believe such a scheme should have
the genuine support of a majority of the group
concerned and be pursued through peaceful, legal and
democratic means. Thus, the first step to statehood
for Iraqi Kurds is the consolidation of a democratic
culture in Iraq.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and
educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive
Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79).
In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday
Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the
Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI).
Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the
Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York
Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique
Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between
1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German
daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of
which have been translated into 20 languages. He has
been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987.
Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published
by Encounter Books in London and New York.